Dostoyevsky's Kantian 'Proof' of God
Some readers may recall that I recently re-read Mikhail Bulgakov's magnum opus, The Master and Margarita. If so, those readers will surely recall the passage that I cited on Kant. Berlioz and Bezdomny had been speaking of Christ just before the novel's opening scene, when they were suddenly joined by the devil, i.e., Woland, who was extraordinarily interested in their atheism:
"But, may I ask," resumed the guest from abroad after a moment's troubled reflection, "what do you make of the proofs of God's existence, of which, as you know, there are five?"Kant's proof, proposed in his Critique of Practical Reason, held that even though one cannot demonstrate the existence of God as an idea of pure reason, the idea of God is inextricably bound up with the link between happiness and morality, for only God can guarantee immortality as reward for moral virtue. Therefore, absolute morality, the gift of immortality, and the existence of God are all essential postulates of practical reason even though they cannot be grounded in pure reason. Or something like that.
"Alas!" answered Berlioz regretfully, "all of those proofs are worthless, and mankind has long since consigned them to oblivion. Surely you would agree that reason dictates that there can be no proof of God's existence."
"Bravo!" exclaimed the foreigner, "Bravo! You've said just what that restless old sage Immanuel said about this very same subject. But here's the rub: he completely demolished all five proofs, and then, in a seeming display of self-mockery, he constructed a sixth proof all his own!"
"Kant's proof," retorted the educated editor with a faint smile, "is also unconvincing. No wonder Schiller said that only slaves could be satisfied with Kant's arguments on this subject, while Strauss simply laughed at his proof." (Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, pages 7-8)
Bulgakov may have been reflecting not only upon a passage in Kant but also upon a scene in The Brothers Karamazov, for in an early passage in the novel, Dostoyevsky -- or, at least, his omniscient albeit mortal narrator -- has Pyotr Alexandrovitch Miüsov recount something that Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov had said a few days earlier:
"I will tell you instead, gentlemen, another interesting and rather characteristic anecdote of Ivan Fyodorovitch himself. Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbours. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovitch added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That's not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognised as the inevitable, the most rational, even honourable outcome of his position. From this paradox, gentlemen, you can judge of the rest of our eccentric and paradoxical friend Ivan Fyodorovitch's theories." (Dostoyevsky, The Brother's Karamazov (New York: Random House, 1950), translated by Constance Garnett, page 78)Obviously, Ivan -- and therefore Dostoyevsky -- had in mind Kant's sixth proof of God's existence, the moral argument in which God is a postulate of practical reason necessary for guaranteeing the ground of morality, namely immortality. Thus does Ivan hold that "whole natural law [of love for others] lies in . . . the belief in immortality," without which, "nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful."
Dostoyevsky may also have been alluding to the legendary founder of the mysterious but ruthless Assassians, Hasan-i-Sabah, a rather unorthodox Muslim who reputedly stated, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted," perhaps based on an extreme interpretation of Surah 3:54 (cf. 8:30) in the Qur'an, which according to some translations states that "Allah is the best of deceivers" ("Allahu khayru al-makireena," the lexical form of makireena, i.e., makara, having as one of its meanings "to practice deceit" [cf. Miim-Kaf-Ra; also Edward William Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon (pdf)]).
But God knows best . . . even if He isn't telling.